The New York Times on the Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy

There’s a recent article on the New York Times about the shady business of buying Book Reviews called “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy“.  This is a pretty crucial read, I think, if you’re an author today.  And it paints a pretty stark picture of what I think is a fairly dystopian underworld that supports and undergirds the digital self-publishing revolution.

In many ways, the story it presents – that of sulf-published authors eager for a little fame and some positive acclaim for their work pay money for good reviews – is an unsurprising one.  Despite policies on Amazon and other sites against this kind of thing, there aren’t, to my knowledge, a lot of mechanisms to enforce this and prevent insincere, pay-for-play reviews.

It’s unlikely I’d have to actually answer this question, but in case it’s not clear: why should authors be worried about a system where some can purchase positive reviews in order to buff their sales?  Because it’s one more barrier to entry that keeps authors from being legitimately successful based on the quality of their work.  You want to be successful, and get a lot of sales of your hot-new-ebook?  Then be prepared to pony up for some positive buzz.  Strike that.  Be prepared to pony up for some artificial, fake positive buzz.  In short, it is profoundly unfair, and a market inefficiency to boot.

It could be argued, I suppose, that there’s nothing different from paying for positive reviews and paying for a cover artist or paying for an editor’s services.  It’s all part of the cost-of-doing-business.  It is different, though, because those fake reviews are deceptively positioned as the genuine opinions of actual readers: they’re supposed to be a stamp-of-approval from one reader to another, and signal that a book is bona fide.

But, truth-be-told, I’m no big fan of authors having to pay for all the services that go into producing a quality book in the first place, either.  I recognize it as a necessary precondition: something you have to be willing to do if you’re going to self-publish.  But there’s still a huge problem with that: it also necessarily excludes authors of limited financial means from entering into the market on a level playing field.  I’ve toyed with different ideas for how to deal with this situation – how to level the playing field for self-publishing aspirants so that those without financial backing but with tons of talent can still make a splash – but I haven’t seen any solutions rise in the marketplace, yet.  There’s Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is only likely to work if you’ve got an established audience (this has been the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen to date).  I take that back.  There is a mechanism by which established authors of limited means can try their work out and get the services they need to polish their book (though it may at times be a tad inefficient): the traditional publishing industry.

And so, this is how it goes.  The article suggests that its protagonist’s business (that of Mr. Rutherford) is no longer extant – having been discovered and effectively shut out by the likes of Google and Amazon. But I’ve no illusions that this isn’t still going on, in some form or other, with other players in the same roles.

And I think it’s a curious scandal, and one that needs more attention, that Mr. John Locke – he of the first-to-sell-a-million-ebooks fame – is implicated in this article.  Mr. Locke, it turns out, was a big-time customer of this positive-review-mill: a fact which he apparently carefully neglected to mention in his how-to book on self-publishing, How I Sold One-Million E-Books

This is not to say that others didn’t achieve their success more legitimately: by genuine readers reading, liking, and reviewing their books, gratis.  But it’s a painful revelation that Locke, and undoubtedly others, achieved their fame and success in such an underhanded way.

But there’s the rub, you see.  Even this scandal aside, the digital self-publishing revolution is still a pay-for-play system, inasmuch as the best-quality-looking covers and the best editing and the best copy-editing and so on will all cost an author money: doing this well isn’t free or cheap.

This is, of course, part of why I still prefer the “traditional” approach for myself.  I have no fan-base to speak of (the readers of this blog notwithstanding, their numbers cannot support a novelist’s career).  I cannot afford even the legitimate the costs of e-book production, let alone afford to buy black-market reviews.  Traditional publishing offers, at present, my best, and most legitimate, chance at success.

Still, I know the traditional path is not for everyone.  I just hope that new, better models arise that allow authors to spread the word about their digitally self-published e-books.  If I think of anything that just might work, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Some other views on the scandal:

K.W. Jeter says “Amazon Should Do What’s Best for Indie Writers & Readers” – the problem with Jeter’s argument is that it seems like he’s trying to suggest that John Locke was an isolated case; but considering the huge amount of money Rutherford was making on this scam, that’s clearly not true: Locke was far from alone in this practice, and there are by necessity many more self-published authors like him, or else the facts in the reporting are wrong. Jeter clarified his thoughts (with quotes from his post) in the comments and it looks like my reading of his point was too narrowly focused on his reaction to Locke; I must apologize for misreading and mischaracterizing his post. It still bears pointing out that obviously, based on the numbers Rutherford was pulling down in his scam, John Locke was not alone in soliciting Rutherford’s services.  Whether Locke or one of the legion of others who used Rutherford’s services, the result is the same: a debasement of the utility of reviews for self-publishing authors.

Chuck Wending says “Bad Author Behavior… Is Bad Author Behavior” – Chuck would have us shrug it off… but he’s wrong and we shouldn’t.  Why?  Because if problems like this are not railed against they become the norm, they become systemic: and then that becomes just what you have to do in order to get published.  Self-publishing becomes an ugly caricature of itself, a pay-for-play slum.

Fellow writer/blogger Jo Eberhardt opines.

More links to come as I encounter them…

Publishing: Contracts, Respect & Reversion

I’ve criticized Dean Wesley Smith in the past.  But I found this particular recent post by him to be very enlightening and useful.

Quite a long time ago (by the age of my blog) I posted a speculative piece about what the future of publishing might look like.  As part of that speculation, I talked about how today’s mid-lister (and tomorrow’s Big Name) authors might grow increasingly disillusioned with overly-aggressive contracts from Big Publishing, and would defect to strike out on their own (though I was mostly wrong about the means of that defection, I appear to have been right about the motives).

And that’s basically what Dean is talking about.

In his post, Dean discusses some simple changes to contracts that Publishers could make that would attract him back to traditional publishing.  But what’s important is that what Dean’s looking for isn’t more money, it’s contractual control over his own work.  He’s asking for a firm rights reversion date, artistic control of his own writing, and equitable consideration for contract cancellation in the case of a publisher’s failure to live up to its own terms.  And Dean equates this control with his own dignity and respect.

I don’t hide the fact that, for myself, I prefer the traditional publication path to the digital self-publishing path (though I’m yet in no position to make a decision about which path I will ultimately pursue).  But I agree with Dean that these are some pretty basic requirements for writers to expect in their contracts.  And of these, the most important clause that Dean mentions is the one about rights reversion.  Continue reading

Logic Error

There’s a lot of bad logic out there.  In the debate between those advocating for digital self-publishing and those advocating for traditional publishing… there’s more than a fair share of bad logic. 

I was intrigued by this infographic on “Rhetological Fallacies” recently linked on a daily link roundup of one author I follow.  These are argument logic errors.  So, keep that in mind as a basis for where I’m going next.

I get around on the internet, occasionally.  I follow a lot of blogs – some more closely than others.  That’s background.  It is, therefore, that I happened upon a blog post by aspiring author Tom Simon.  I’d followed a few of his posts before, ostensibly because something he posted once interested me.  But this one, in particular, smacked me as… well… Keep that link on Rhetological Fallacies in mind, will you?

Mr. Simon does a lot of posts with short quotes from various things he finds interesting.  Often, he’ll indicate that some quote or another is, in his estimation,wise. 

The alleged wisdom in this recent post goes back to another comment on a recent Passive Voice blog post

On the subject of whether to publish traditionally or to digitally self-published, the quoted sage said this:

My attitude is to look at what happens if you make the wrong choice.

If you self-publish and you do something wrong, you can fix it. If the entire self-publishing industry implodes, you still have the rights to your work, so you can still go sell it to a traditional publisher.

If you go traditional and something goes wrong, you are completely screwed. You’ve signed away your rights, you don’t have control over how your work is marketed, etc., etc. If your publisher goes under, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of legal work for you to be able to re-sell that work, assuming you ever can. Is it worth to you to take that kind of risk in return for some editing and cover art?

If this is what passes for wisdom… I must weep.

Where do I begin?  Well… that’s easy enough: I’ll begin at the beginning.  And when I get to the end, I’ll stop. Continue reading

Pyramid Schemes, Market Bubbles, E-Publishing and Me

When I was a freshman in High School, I was introduced to the concept of Amway.  At the time I was young, naive, and also legally incapable of owning and running an Amway business thanks, mercifully, to various child labor laws  But one-day soon, wouldn’t I like to be a part of an Amway business? The idea had a powerful allure: you put in “X” hours per week (where “X” is some number less than what you’d need for a part-time job) talking to “Y” contacts (where “Y” represents some seemingly-reasonable number of friends, family, and poor schlubs who you can rope into a marketing pitch session) and if only “Z” of them join (where “Z” is some number less than “Y”, but one which is nonetheless unachievably high because some number “Z-prime” of them, which assymptotically approaches 100% of “Y”, have already heard of Amway and aren’t interested) then you’ve got a solid foundation for a growing business.  If each of your “Z” business associates goes out and does the same, and each of their associates the same again, why then, in like no time at all you’ll be raking in megabucks without any further committment of your own time and resources.  You’ll be on easy street.  That’s the way they sell it, anyway.

This is, classically, what we call a “Pyramid Scheme”.  This post isn’t a dig on Amway – they make perfectly fine, if overpriced food, cleaning, and dietary supplement products – nor is this post even about Amway.  Amway is just the starting point, an anecdote, a part of a story about how I developed a healthy skepticism of “get rich quick” schemes and grandiose claims.  And it’s true you can defend Amway: their business is legal, and they do market and sell actual physical products.  But with Amway the whole idea wasn’t so much that you made money by marketing and selling Amway products.  The whole idea was that you got other people to market and sell Amway products for you, and then you make a cut of their profits.  More recently, I read an exposé that told how the only people who ever got rich from Amway were the ones who made and sold the promotional materials and the motivational videos and books and went on the motivational talk circuit.  No one ever made a mint selling overpriced Amway products.

I had loved ones inolved with Amway.  One day, we anticipated, I would join their “organization” and get involved, too.  And things would snowball from there and we’d all be rich.  My loved ones never got rich.  But they did spend overmuch, for a little while, on Amway products.  Eventually, they parted ways with Amway, quietly.  And with that, I was already better prepared for my next encounter with pyramid schemes and “multi-level marketing”.

Several years ago, before I met Dear Wife, I left Small Town, Southern State, USA to move to Big City, Southern State, USA.  (I am not a Southerner, but the South became my home when my military father retired in the aforementioned Southern State.)  I was hieing out for hopefully better job prospects and almost certainly better personal life prospects.  Both turned out to be true, thankfully (I have my current job, for instance, and I met Dear Wife.)  But upon arrival in the Big City and putting forth my resumé in various venues for the putting forth of resumés, I was contacted for an interview from an insurance and financial services company.  Insurance and Financial Services weren’t my area of interest, but I was pretty desperate at this point.  Of course, I did not turn down the interview.  I don’t know why the fact that the interview took place late in the evening didn’t tip me off that something was amiss. Continue reading

Not Exactly the Apple Of My Eye

I’ve talked a lot about Amazon on this blog.  I haven’t said much about Apple.  Mostly, that’s because the subjects of “Apple” and “Writing” rarely cross paths in the news.

But they’ve crossed paths, recently, with the reveal of the new EULA for Apple’s iBooks Author platform.  And the early reviews are, shall we say, not stellar.  Says techie guru Ed Bott from ZDNet (a prominent tech industry web-zine), this EULA is “mind-bogglingly greedy” – effectively forcing the users of Apple’s iBooks Author platform to sell publications created in that platform exclusively through Apple’s iBooks/iTunes store. 

To follow that up, they appear to be taking aim at ebook publishing standards with the probable goal of removing the open standard EPUB version from competition with their new iBooks format.

And of course… you’ll need a $500 iPad to buy those fancy new iBooks.  Because, hey, cool, interactive books!  Who doesn’t have half-a-grand to drop just for the right to maybe purchase interactive books sold exclusively by Apple?  (Answer: I, for one, do not yet own an iPad, nor any other variety of tablet/slate computer.  So do a lot of other people.  And I’m not exactly on the “poor” end of the rich-poor spectrum.  I’m not on the “rich” end, either, but I’m still on the “can’t afford to spend frivolously on an iPad” end.) 

So lest it be said that I’m simply an Amazon-hater because of the many posts that I’ve written about Amazon that are potentially read as negative, let it therefore be shown that it’s not Amazon, per se, that get’s me: it’s anything that hurts writers and/or readers and favors corporations who have nothing to do with either and/or which is anticompetitive.  Those sorts of things?  I’m not a fan of them.  I’m a really huge un-fan of them.

Clearing the Waters: Marketing with Traditional Publishers vs. Digital Self-Publishing

I was reading an interview of a digitally self-published author the other day when I ran across a line about marketing that sounded an awful lot like something I’d heard before:

Two key factors made me decide to self publish. One was realizing that even with a traditional publishing contract, I would have to market my books myself. Marketing is the one thing I don’t enjoy about being a writer, and if traditional publishing could no longer offer that to new authors, what was the point?

I’ve heard that claim before, but this time it struck a chord with me.  But it wasn’t the chord that was meant to be struck.

Well yes, I thought, it would make sense to digitally self-publish if you were going to have to do all the work of marketing yourself.  Except, my thought continued, that’s not true in the least

What I realized, as I read this statement, was that while it sounded true and it jives with the rumors that swirl around the internet and are continually propagated by various self-publishing cheerleaders, the claim that traditionally published authors have to do all their own marketing is based at least in part on a fundamental misapprehension of what “marketing” is.  If you’re a writer who’s trying to decide whether to digitally self-publish or to pursue traditional publication, and you’re leaning toward the former because you think you’d have to market the book yourself anyway, whether you published traditionally or otherwise, so why not cut out the hassle of the middle man – please disabuse yourself of that notion.  This isn’t an anti-self-publishing screed.  There are a lot of good, solid, logical and economically- or artistically-self-interested reasons to go with self-publication over traditional publication.  But the idea that traditional publishers will not do any marketing on your behalf is not one of them.  And I can say this, yes, without even ever having been traditionally published.

I’ve pointed out before, here on my blog, that I’m fortunate enough to be possessed of a fairly decent education with regards to Business, and as part of that education I’ve become fairly well-acquainted with the specifics of Marketing.  I recently wrote about the subject of author self-branding, for instance, for those who might be interested.  My qualifications on the subject, again: I started with a Bachelor’s degree in Business which included a small number of classes on Marketing fundamentals and International Marketing.  More recently, I completed an MBA from a nationally ranked institution (not Harvard or Wharton or Stanford level, but not too far down the rankings from them), wherein I focused my studies in two main areas, one of which was Marketing. 

Okay, so my credentials are out of the way.  Why then, is it wrong to say that traditionally published authors have to do it all their own Marketing?  What can you expect a traditional publisher to do for you, marketing-wise?  Read on, ye weary and wary writers, and let’s talk about a little something that keeps writers up at night, in a cold sweat. Continue reading

The Self-Aggrandizing Self-Publishing Kings: Extreme Rhetoric, Inflammatory Language and Ulterior Motives

A few weeks ago, author Tobias Buckell spoke out on his blog about the extreme rhetoric and inflammatory language used by those who… let’s say they “advocate” for self-publishing and the end of the old publishing paradigm.

A lot of people blasted Buckell – well, a lot of people who already buy into the rhetoric of the self-crowned self-publishing Kings.  But I saw in his post a reflection of my own discomfort with the rhetoric and language of these self-publishing cheerleaders.

While Buckell’s comments, itself, lead off with some pretty strong – one might even say inflammatory – language, the point he was making, the point that struck home for me, was that many of these self-crowned self-publishing Kings make a habit of using some pretty offensive language and imagery in their anti-traditional-publishing diatribes. 

A good run-down of the issues Buckell inveighed against are given on writer S. V. Rowle’s blog.  The basic argument goes thusly: if you’re using extreme, inflammatory, insensitive, and offensive language in the main thrust of your argument, then it doesn’t really matter whether your argument has merits; you’ve basically set yourself up as a jack-ass that can safely be ignored. 

This is a big driver of what makes me uncomfortable with these supposed self-publishing cheer-leaders, though it’s not the only one.  What sorts of things are they saying, that bothered Tobias – and myself – so much? Continue reading

Another Perspective on Amazon as Publisher & Bookseller, Plus a Contrarian View on Disruption in Publishing

I can’t seem to stay away from articles about disruption and disintermediation in the publishing industry, and especially those about Amazon’s role in it.  So here are a few articles of potential interest, and some comments on them.

In “The Trouble With Amazon“, author/publisher/consultant/etc Thad McIlroy opines about Amazon’s recent foray into vertical integration and publishing.  In this article, Thad suggests that the real danger Amazon presents to the publishing industry is not their mucking about in the publisher’s playground, but their bread-and-butter core business of bookselling.  The problem, he suggests, is that Amazon is systematically devaluing books.  His article includes this painfully true zinger:

Writing has become badly debased when a $4.99 e-book is thought overpriced, but people will line up at six in the morning in front of an Apple store to pay $499 for the skinny tablet to read it on.

Thad outlines a number of other problematic practices of Amazon – censorship, remote deletion of books, contrarian e-book format support (and opposition to industry-accepted standards), and so on.  All of these problems boil down to one over-arching concern: market power.

Thad concedes that “Amazon does not have a monopoly on selling e-books”, though it has much of the power of one, and then suggests perhaps Amazon is an “oligopoly”.

This is where I part ways, somewhat, with the article. Continue reading

Last Call in the Great E-Book Debate

I’ve written quite a lot in recent weeks about e-b0oks and self-publishing and La Revolucion! (Links abound at the end of the article for those who are painfully interested and didn’t catch them the first time.)

It’s funny.  I don’t even own an e-reader.  The dang things are expensive.  And e-books aren’t really that cheap – unless you want to read $0.99 or $2.99 e-books by no-name self-published folks (which is what this is all about, I guess), whereas I mostly want to read books by authors whose names I know and recognize, whose books I am assured to like.  As I mentioned when I wrote about my “to-read list” (here, here, and relatedly here), I’m not so overflowing with time that I can waste it on an e-book that I may or may not enjoy.  That’s right: the limiting factor isn’t the few bucks an e-book might save.  It’s the time to read them all.

So e-books might be marginally cheaper: but to recoup the cost of an e-reader I’d have to read so many books, and from where I stand there’s simply no way I’ll ever have time to read that many books.  I foresee that I am doomed to die and pass from this mortal life with a to-read list that still piled high.  I’ve blogged about this problem before, with respect to the e-book revolution

So, in some ways, as I talk about e-books it’s a tad hypocritical, or self-serving, or whatever.  I don’t own an e-reader, and I’m not likely to in the short-term at least unless one mysteriously ends up in my lap at no cost to me.  Do I want one?  Oh yes.  I am a geek, after all.  Gadget lust runs in my veins.  But I’m a practical geek.

My interest in e-books and the related digital self-publishing revolution relates mainly to my interest in building a hypothetical career as an author.  (I say hypothetical because it remains to be seen whether I have the chops for it.)  Is self-publishing the right path for me?  That’s a question I’ve struggled to answer – even as I acknowledge that it’s not a question I need to answer for a good long while to come.  Write first.  Worry about publishing later.

Given the facts on the ground, as it were – that being that I have yet no novel to worry about publishing – it would probably behoove me to shut my yap about digital self-publishing, for the time being, wouldn’t it?

Maybe so.  I don’t plan to stop learning about it, though. Continue reading

“A Novel Venture” Revisited: Kickstarting a Writing Career

Quite a good long time ago, I wrote a post about one possible future publishing model that might rise up and replace (or co-exist with) the current traditional model.

I wrote about this before the real explosion in e-books that first started attracting attention sometime in November of 2010 – it’s here, all the way back in February 2010.  This was in the early days of my blog, before I had regular readers, so most of you will likely not have seen this post.

I called my idea the “Novel Venture Capital Model”, and the gist was that authors would somehow be able to tap into a network of “angel investors” or “venture capitalists” who were interested in finding and funding successful novelists.   The theory was that some authors would abandon traditional publishers because of crazy rights-grabs and depressed royalty rates – but they wouldn’t be able to fund the development, editing, cover art, printing and distribution of books themselves.  All of that costs money.  Traditionally, publishers fund all that, but the concept of this hypothetical model was to decouple the financing of book production from the physical process, allowing the authors themselves to be the business-people calling the shots.

And then, of course, the e-book revolution began.  And part of my hypothetical model actually started coming true.  Now, it wasn’t really a prediction – I included in my original post both a pro and a con for why it would succeed and why it would fail.  And I’m not interested in having been “right”.  What I am interested in is how reality is catching up to those proposals, and my own evolving thoughts on where the world of publishing is going, and what role I will be able to play in that future. Continue reading